Kato'aga: Rotuman Ceremonies

by Elizabeth K. Inia

Table of Contents


Part 1: Components of Ceremony

'Epa, Apei, and Päega: Ceremonial Mats
Koua: Earth Ovens
'Umefe: Chiefly Tables
Tefui: Garlands
Lolo: Anointing Oil
Mena: Turmeric
Mafua: Knowledgeable Elders
Fumarä'e: The Man in Charge
Etiquette and Manners
Numbers and Measurements

Part 2: Ceremonies

Death and Funerals
Birth Rituals
First Birthday
Hapagsu: Recurrence Prevention
Majau: The Power to Heal
Ag Forau: Farewell to Travellers
Mamasa: Welcoming Ceremonies
Installation of a Chief
Homage to Chiefs
Koua Puha
Ancient Marriage Rituals
Modern Marriage Customs

Rotuman Indigenous Spirituality

Homage to Chiefs

It is Rotuman custom to give food regularly to chiefs as a way of paying homage and ensuring the prosperity of the land. A share of the first taro uprooted from the village garden (pu'akia vek ta) was given to the district chief and another to the land-owners. Soon after the first lot of taro was presented to the district chief and the owners of the land, the gardeners could harvest taro for their own use. The district chief was also acknowledged when swarms of fish were stranded in the lagoon or near the shore (ia' fo'a). The first catch was presented to him before others took the fish for their own families. Afule and ro are the common ia' fo'a in Rotuma. [1] It was also the custom for each household in a district to provide a basket of cooked food (fono) once a year in the month of December before Christmas Eve. The faufisi set the time and date for the presentation of food to the district chief. This practice was known as tukuag 'omoe.[2] Several years ago, the men of Itu'ti'u began donating money instead of fono, but now some people talk of resuming the traditional presentation of fono rather than money.

Pu'akia Vek Ta: Bringing Food from the Garden

Pu'akia vek ta refers to the first taro pulled out of a village garden (vek ne hanua) given to the land-owners. Each man produced two bundles of taro, so the corms might number as many as 50 or 100. Pu'akia vek ta se gagaj 'es itu' ta refers to the taro from a village garden given to a district chief. The first lot of taro to the district chief was äfe (1,000) taro. The taro could be from a garden cooperatively planted by the villagers, or by the men from one family. When the men brought the taro to the chief's place, the spokesman said that the food was for 'uet'ak fei (swinging on the hook for hanging food in his kitchen) or that it was fun se vahi (not enough food to fill a pot). Both of these phrases are expressions of modesty, apologizing for the meagerness of the gift.

Kiu: Gift of Ten Thousand

If a group of taro planters (or rarely, one planter) could produce 10,000 corms from their gardens in addition to those needed for their families' daily consumption, they presented a kiu (gift of 10,000 taro corms) to the seven district chiefs and other dignitaries [and in recent years, the Catholic priest, the Methodist superintending minister, and the District Officer. Of the total, 1,000 corms each were given to the seven district chiefs and the three dignitaries].

When a kiu presentation was held, men from the village or district making the presentation pulled the taro plants, brought them to the village, and stacked them in a long row about five feet high. They also had to help prepare the shelter (ri hapa) for the presentation and help make the koua to feed the invitees.

At the appointed time, the visitors moved around to see the stacked taro. In front of each portion, a plaque was placed with the name of the chief or dignitary to whom it would go. The wives of the men making the presentation sometimes decided to cover each portion with an apei and 'eap ma 'on faua.

After everyone had an opportunity to inspect the taro, the women from each district took the mats presented to their chief to protect them from any rain that might fall, and everyone was seated in the ri hapa to watch the dancers perform songs and dances composed for the occasion. When the dancing finished, the mafua announced the end of the dance in the usual way and called those who were to serve the food and kava to get ready for the feast by saying "Marie', marie', marie'!" The feast for the ceremony was done in the usual way. If one family presented the kiu, the head of the family sat on a päega prepared by its members and their relatives. The chiefs sat on either side of the päega as usual. All the guests were garlanded once they were seated at their allotted places according to their rank. If there was no päega in the centre of the ri hapa, the provider of the kiu still sat in the central place, for he was the most important guest of the day. The kava bowl that was brought in by the kava mixer for the feast was placed in front of the main guest. When the mafua announced this exceptional gathering, he started with, "Kalog! Gou täla usia'afua, kiu 'a'ana te', ut ta 'a'an äf saghul! Päega te', agrua fol, 'eap ma 'on faua saghul, 'eap hap saghul, rer sema 'e tu'ruet, siliket, sar het! Te'eiate' täla usia'afua, tela'a 'af limaghulut, 'i'in sema 'e hat liam, pulmakaut, fekei moa, het, kes poat kau rua, fekei kop he rua, tarau merene, tarau ponapa, kav hu fakat, ia' marie', marie', marie'!" (Sirs, I am announcing thus. Here is a kiu 'a'ana (name given to this gathering) 10,000 taro, brought straight in from one's garden! The päega is made up of 3 agrua, 10 'eap ma 'on faua, 10 'eap hapa, topped by an apei and a silken cloth and garlands. The food for the chiefs consists of 50 baskets of cooked food, 5 roasted pigs, 1 roasted cow, 50 roasted chickens, 2 cartons of corned beef, 50 fekei in 2 baskets, 100 watermelons, 100 pineapples, 1 kava plant; thank you, thank you, thank you!)

Then the food followed. The mafua distributed the pas ne kava (10 pieces of kava; see below) among the 7 chiefs and 3 selected dignitaries.

After the feast, each chief took his taro, pas ne kava, and mats home. He usually distributed his portion to his kohea soa' ta (villagers who looked after and fed him; literally, cookhouse of a district chief).

Pas ne Kava: Dividing the Kava

On very important occasions, especially when all seven district chiefs and other dignitaries were present, if the kava plant was a kav hu toso (a huge plant tied up with torau [white leaf of the coconut tree]), then the pas ne kava was performed. After the mafua finished the fakpeje, saying "Turo' kalog," the kava tender called out, "Kalog! Gou täla usia'afua, mou iat het pas saghul" (Sirs, I am going to say this root is so big that it can be chopped into 10 pieces). "Pas ne kavaitet se Gagaj Maraf, marie', marie', marie'!" (This section is for Gagaj Maraf, thank you, thank you, thank you!) "Pas ne kavaitet se Gagaj [name of next chief], marie', marie', marie'!" He called all the remaining chiefs' names this way, and then said for the other dignitaries, "Pas ne kavat se [name of dignitary], marie', marie', marie'!" and so on, up to a total of 10 recipients. Then he proceeded to cut the kava root into 10 pieces. He waited until the chiefs and dignitaries had finished eating but were still seated, and the servers were clearing up the 'umefe, before he took a piece of the root to each person recognized earlier. If any pieces remained, the mafua could decide who was to be given them, such as the kava girls, kava tender, or mafua himself. The kava pieces were taken by the kava tender and placed behind the chiefs' and dignitaries' baskets of food. After the feast, one of each chief's relatives carried his section of kava to the chief's house; sometimes the chief could give it to someone whom he favoured.

Fao A'a: Feasts for Chiefs

Rotumans still practise a feast called fao a'a, which is traditionally baked on the night before a meeting of the district chiefs, or before a kato'aga being held in honour of visiting government officials. Each district takes on the role of hosting in turn; therefore it is called fao a'a: fao means to prepare a koua overnight; a'a means to take a turn.

Whenever important government officials plan a visit to the island, the chiefs are informed and the district whose turn it is to prepare the fao a'a starts planning and preparing. In colonial days, official visits were generally for one day only, so the mamasa, the dances, and the fao a'a were all held in one day. Nowadays visits are usually longer, but the first day of the visit is known as the day for the mamasa, and the fao a'a is understood to include the koua along with the mats for the mamasa.

After word of the impending visit by government officials has been received, the chiefs discuss the programme is discussed at a meeting. Several districts often take part in making preparations: One or two districts look after the entertainment, composing songs and dance routines; another district provides mats for the mamasa; and another takes responsibility for the fao a'a. Provisions for the return voyage (oso) are provided by another district. [3]

In a kato'aga to welcome an official party the mamasa is always performed first, followed by entertainment and the serving of the fao a'a. In the past all these activities were spectacular in their own way, but the most spectacular scene of all was the bringing in of the fao a'a. Men and women wore white, with waists girdled with green; the men used coconut leaves and the women ji leaves. First came six or eight men bringing the kav hu toso (big kava plant) on their shoulders, followed by men carrying fono (baskets containing the food for each visitor and each chief); then men who carried the roasted pigs, beef, and chickens, followed by the younger men at the rear with the different varieties of sugar-cane and fruits such as watermelons, pine-apples, and bananas (ripened fakmamosa; see below).

Before the kava girls led the others to occupy their places in front of the chiefs and visiting dignitaries (as described before on pp. 65-66), they knew that the kav hu toso was different, and that the names of those who were entitled to drink the chiefly kava (te'eiate' kava) must be proclaimed in a kind of dialogue (foh kava) sung by the mafua and han ho kava. They sat and waited until the tables were set and all were waiting for the chiefly drink. Then the mafua started:


Marie', marie', marie', Häea!

(Thank you, thank you, thank you, Häea [name of the han ho kava, in this case Häe]!)

Han ho kava:

Gou te', kalog.

(I am here, sir.)


Sor se' ta han.

(Wash your hands.)

Molim se mua la re asam 'ou kav iat ta'ag.

(Come to the front to name those who are entitled to the chiefly drink.)

Han ho kava:

Kava iate' täe la usia'afua, kava iate' kav fat hifu.

(Now I am proclaiming, this chiefly drink is for the seven chiefs [the other dignitaries can be added on as appropriate].)


Tau ma noagsin.

(Give them once only.)

Han ho kava:


(Once only.)


Tau ma ho'ag se Marafu.

(The first cup to Gagaj Maraf.) [The most important person should be the first to drink; the mafua calls out the one who sits in the middle of the row.]

Han ho kava:

Se Marafuag te' (singing tone).

(To Maraf) [The kava server takes the ipu to the titled person named.]


Ma Rupeti, ma 'on sasigi

(And Rupeti and others who come from the same district.) [Rupeti is the name of the man who represented the district of Noa'tau at that time.]

Han ho kava:

Ma 'on sasigi.

(And others from his district.)


Te'eiate kava.

(This is the chiefly drink.)

Han ho kava:


(That's all.) [Meaning one only.]

The chiefly kava was taken to the following people by the two kava girls, one to the chief and another to the representative of the district, in turn.

























The dialogue between the mafua and han ho kava went on until the chiefs and district representatives had all been served. During the visit of important visitors whose rank was higher than that of the district chiefs, their titles were called out first and they were offered kava before the chiefs. When all those who were entitled to drink had drunk their portions, the mafua stated:


Tau se te' ne gagaj 'atakoa.

(Give out the kava drink to the others.)

Usia' te' ofiofua.

(That is all.)

Ia' marie', marie', marie'!

(Thank you, thank you, thank you!

The procedure of the meal was the same as described on pp. 73-77. The district people who prepared the fao a'a usually took back the remaining food and shared it with their families. Sometimes they ate under the shade of a tree away from where the chiefs had their meal.

Today the districts still have their fao a'a in turn whenever government officials come to visit Rotuma to meet with the Rotuma Council, but when members of the Rotuma Council meet on their own they usually have their meals at home. The change took place when the Council members began to be given a sitting allowance, and bus transport became available to take them home.

Fakmamosa: Ripening Bananas

Bananas have their own time to ripen but for important occasions such as weddings or mamasa they can be artificially ripened (fakmamosa) to make sure the supply is sufficient. Rotumans still practise fakmamosa, in this way:

Four days before the festive gathering, men carry bunches of mature but not yet ripe bananas to a sandy place where a trench of approximately  4 x 1 metres is dug, deep enough for bunches of bananas to be hung on poles placed without touching the bottom. At both ends of the ditch, they dig fire places and fill them with dried coconut husks. One or two long poles are placed lengthwise and the bunches of bananas are tied to them. A man goes into the trench to light the fires. After he climbs out, the men close the firepits, placing cross pieces of sticks on top, then covering the whole trench with banana leaves, followed by sand.

The fakmamosa is opened early on the morning of the day for the feast. Having steamed for four days, the bananas are hastened to ripen yet the skin remains green on most of them, especially the following varieties: faksara, vanvani, mermere, and tapua.

Some of the bunches of bananas are set aside for the feast, and the rest can be hung in the ri hapa as decorations. If anyone wants one, they can help themselves.

Notes to Homage to Chiefs

[1] For the start of the new millennium, in January 2000, the newly installed chief of Itu'ti'u, Gagaj Marekao Vaurasi, brought blessings of fish (ia' fo'a called ro) to Motusa lagoon. People all over Rotuma came to fish from Monday to Saturday for two months. Men and women, young and old, joined the fish drive each day. Five or six canoes were filled to the brim with ro every day. These fish were distributed evenly among the people. back to text

[2] The custom has continued to evolve. In Itu'ti'u, for example, subchiefs used to give five dollars each but now give only two dollars, while each untitled male is obligated to give one dollar. This collection now is taken to the district chief on 1 December by the village chiefs, and presented by the faufisi. In the past, every able man in the district accompanied the subchiefs and brought his donation of fono. The district chief, in return, gave them breakfast or lunch, together with his blessings. Nowadays the donation begins the av mane'a (play period) during which the chief's authority to recruit labour for district projects is abrogated. In Itu'ti'u av mane'a lasts from 1 December to the date in January that is fixed by the Rotuma Council to end the period. back to text

[3] The men put the baskets of oso and bunches of bananas along the roadside for the government truck to collect when the boat is about to leave the island. back to text

To Koua Puha